- About 65% of Americans are willing to try cheese made with dairy proteins that don’t come from animals, according to a survey from Europe-based precision fermentation company Formo and the University of Bath. A total of 53.8% said they would be willing to buy the cheese. The survey results, published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, talked to consumers from the U.S., U.K., Brazil, Germany and India about animal-free cheese. A total of 1,009 Americans were included in the sample.
- Americans ranked animal-free dairy cheese as less natural than cheese made with traditional dairy. Consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere also said that animal-free dairy cheese wouldn’t taste as good as traditionally made dairy cheese, but it would have a similar taste, health and safety profile to basic or vegan cheese.
- While there is no animal-free dairy cheese on the market yet, there are several companies working to produce the different proteins that would make it through precision fermentation. This type of product, once available, would be identical to traditional cheeses that have been known for hundreds of years, but the proteins would not have been directly taken from animals.
With scientific advancements, meticulous research and inspiration to find a way to get traditional products in brand new ways, the food of the future could have a very different journey to consumers’ plates. Beyond figuring out how to produce these new foods at scale — in this case, high-quality dairy proteins through fermentation that can be made into cheese — the biggest challenge for food tech companies is likely to be convincing consumers that they’re worth eating. After all, if these companies meet their objectives, food produced the traditional way and through tech will look, feel and taste the same.
Before taking the survey, study participants read a synopsis about a company that was about to launch an animal-free dairy cheese and a description of how the cheese was made, so they were educated about the product. The fact that more than six in 10 Americans at this point say they would try the cheese is a positive thing for animal-free dairy companies. According to survey results, consumers in the U.S. were actually among the most skeptical about animal-free dairy cheese. Meanwhile, nearly eight in 10 worldwide were willing to try it. This figure was highest in Brazil and India, where nine in 10 wanted to try the product.
While a cultured dairy producer participated in this study, work on it was done by unaffiliated university researchers. The sample size was large and diversified, and because Formo is in R&D mode with no products, few participants were likely to have heard of the company.
These results reflect other surveys this year about traditional food made through high technology. Cell-based meat maker Eat Just worked with a consulting firm on a survey asking consumers if they’d be willing to swap traditional chicken from slaughtered animals for cell-based chicken made of cells grown in a bioreactor. After learning more about what this meant, nearly three in four said they would consider purchasing cell-based chicken.
The willingness to try these tech-enabled food products means that manufacturers need to focus not only on the science to make them, but also on the storytelling. Consumers need to be clearly told what the products are and why they are worth eating. In the case of precision fermented cheese, consumers need to be told they aren’t getting plant-based cheese, which has made strides as a category but still may be facing some prejudice from people who would think it isn’t as good as that coming from dairy.
Companies could focus on sustainability. A 2015 life cycle analysis cited in Formo’s report says animal-free dairy products use 65% less energy, 91% less land and 98% less water than conventional dairy products, while emitting 84% less greenhouse gases.
But telling the story is difficult, especially with such a new product. At a session at the virtual Future Food-Tech: Alternative Proteins conference last week, Irina Gerry, chief marketing officer for Change Foods, which is developing animal-free cheese through precision fermentation, outlined the biggest challenge the company faces.
“The fascinating thing about developing language in our new space is testing it with consumers,” she said. “It’s a bit tricky because you cannot ask them what they think about something they’ve never heard about.”